Hawaii 3 Day Big Island Itinerary + Tips
The island of Hawai’i, more commonly called the Big Island, is known for its amazing landscapes, and in particular, its volcanoes. It’s not as commercialized as Oahu (another of the Hawaiian islands), which means that when you’re on the island, you get to truly escape the craziness of everyday life and spend some time in paradise. This 3 Day Big Island Itinerary will give you plenty ideas for things to do, where to stay, what to pack, and more!
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- 3 Day Big Island Itinerary
- Other Things to Do on the Big Island
- Should I Rent a Car on the Big Island?
- Where to Stay on the Big Island
- What to Pack for the Big Island
3 Day Big Island Itinerary
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
What better way to kick off a trip to Hawaii’s Big Island than by visiting the top attraction on the island?
I knew that most of Hawaii had actually been formed as part of molten rock being pushed up to the surface of the earth from an underground “hot spot,” but seeing the resulting volcanoes up close and personal at the was a whole other level of amazing.
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, there are two main roads that you can take: Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. Each road has various places where you can park and get out and experience different features of the park. Some stops only take a few minutes. Others will take longer if want to experience the full effect.
If you want to experience both roads to the fullest, you will need at least a full day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, if not two or three days. However, with so much to do and only 3 days on the Big Island, there just isn’t enough time to do it all, so you’ll have to choose how to best spend your day in the park.
I happened to visit Hawaii in 2016, before Kilauea volcano’s eruption on May 3rd, 2018. This meant that I had a chance to see lava flow in person, so it was my top priority when visiting the park.
However, since the eruption, the “lava glow” that the park was famous for has since disappeared. Maybe in the future the volcanic activity will change and lava will once again be viewable, but even if it isn’t, the park is still a fantastic place to visit. The volcanic rock is still breathtakingly beautiful and the how many people can say that they’ve walked through a lava tube?
Punalu’u Beach (Black Sand Beach)
Start off Day 2 of your 3 day Big Island itinerary by heading to Punalu’u Beach, more commonly known as Black Sand Beach. When people say the word “beach,” most of the time I think of white sand and beautiful blue water. When I heard of a beach that had black sand instead of white, I knew I just had to see it.
As we drove to the beach, I did a bit of research and discovered that the black or charcoal color of the sand is actually a result of an old lava flow from the several volcanos on the island. The sand is actually made from lava fragments and other volcanic minerals such as basalt. How cool is that?
Unfortunately when we went, there was a strong undercurrent, so swimming wasn’t permitted, but if you are lucky enough to go on a day when the current isn’t too strong, you can enter the water and even do some snorkeling. If you’re really lucky, you might even see some endangered Hawksbill turtles hanging around in the water.
Even if you can’t enter the water, it’s a cool place to visit. You can take a walk along the beach (although the sand can get quite hot in the sun), and check out some of the larger volcanic rocks lying along the beach.
If you choose to climb up onto the rocks, be careful of your footing! The can get quite slippery from the ocean water and are jagged in parts. My mom learned the hard way that climbing the rocks in sandals probably wasn’t the best idea. She ended up breaking her toe and we spent a few hours at a nearby hospital having it examined.
Atlantis Kona Submarine Tour
Ever taken a dive inside of a fully function submarine? Growing up I’d been on tours of decommissioned Navy submarines and the like, but I’d never actually been inside a submarine when it dove underwater. On the Atlantis Kona Submarine Tour, you get to do just that.
Not surprisingly, the fish are afraid of the submarine, so they typically don’t get too close, save for a few curious souls who are brave enough to swim up to the window once the submarine stops moving. If you’re looking for a place to see wild, tropical fish up close, you would be better off taking a snorkeling tour. However, if you want to be able to check out the ocean floor and all its sunken treasures while stay dry and cozy, this tour is a great option.
On the tour, we passed by a large reef where several fish had made their home, as well as several shipwrecks. I was also discovered that the colors of the fish and ships weren’t as vibrant as I expected because certain colors didn’t come through as well this deep into the ocean. For the most part, we stayed around 60 to 70ft underwater, but at one point we went as low as 109ft!
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Likely due to Hawaii’s close proximity to Japan, there is a large Japanese influence in Hawaii. One of those such influences is Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, a a public garden in the neighborhood that attempts to imitate a standard Japanese garden. It has a small tea house where they perform a tea ceremony at certain times, and also has the traditional torii that are often used as gates to Japanese gardens and shrines. They even have several little bridges leading to other small islands or other sections of the garden.
I said that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the top attraction on the Big Island, but Rainbow Falls may be the most beautiful attraction. It just as amazing in person as it does in the pictures you see online. Disappointingly, there was no rainbow, as the name might suggest, but that didn’t take away from the beauty of it at all. When you first arrive, there is a lookout where you can look down on the crater into which the waterfall flows. After, you can hike up to see the top of the falls, but the trees and angle make for a boring scene. The truly beautiful sight is from the bottom.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
As your 3 Day Big Island itinerary comes to a close, I recommend winding down at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. If you’re not from a tropical climate, it’s a great chance to see all the tropical plants you would never see at home. Plus, a few spots in the garden offer decent views of the ocean. The place is surprisingly large, and a great reminder of why Hawaii is often called “Paradise.”
Other Things to Do on the Big Island
There is a lot more to do on the Big Island than just the activities mentioned in the above itinerary. If you have more than 3 days on the Big Island or want to swap something out of the above itinerary, check out these other awesome things to do on the Big Island!
Snorkeling and Diving
The Big Island has a lot of amazing spots for those who would love to go snorkeling or diving while in Hawaii. You can go on your own or as part of a tour:
- Kealakekua Bay 2.5-Hour Afternoon Snorkel Tour
- 3-Hour Wild Dolphin Adventure & Reef Snorkel
- 3 Hour Waikoloa Snorkeling & Sailing Adventure
- Eco-Friendly Snorkel & Dolphin Watching Tour
- Kealakekua Bay 4-Hour Snorkel & Dolphin Tour
- Kealakekua Bay Morning Dolphin Swim and Snorkel
- Kona Coast Manta Ray Snorkel Sunset Cruise
- Kailua-Kona Night Manta Ray Swim
- Morning Snorkel Sail to Captain Cook’s Monument
Those who love the outdoors will find plenty of things to do on the Big Island. It has everything from hiking to ATV Rides, to Zip-lining to Horseback Riding.
- Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Small-Group Adventure Tour
- Maunakea Stellar Explorer HILO
- Mauna Kea Sunrise Experience
- Hawaii Laser Tag Park
- Small Group Grand Circle Island Nature Tour
- Hilo Dual-Track Zipline Adventure
- Eco-Friendly 8-Line Zipline Adventure in Poipu
- 3-Hour Kohala Canopy Zipline Adventure
- Eco-Friendly Kohala Zipline Adventure
- Full-Day Kohala Zipline and Waterfall Adventure
- Full Day Adventure through Kohala Waterfalls
- Small Group Waipio Valley and Waterfall Tours
Should I Rent a Car on the Big Island?
Most definitely. As can be guessed by the nickname, the Big Island is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. Many of the island’s top attractions are spread out across the island, and public transportation isn’t always available. The drive just from Kona International Airport to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is about 2 hours.
Where to Stay on the Big Island
We chose to stay at the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel due to its proximity to the airport. We were able to stay at a nice hotel and even get an ocean view room for a decent price. Plus, the whole area around the hotel was full of restaurants, souvenir shops and other things to do.
I have absolutely no complaints about the hotel itself or the area. It was an absolutely beautiful place to stay. However, I wouldn’t recommend staying there for solo or family travelers, if only because of how far it was from all of the activities on this 3 day big island itinerary. If I personally had to do it all over again, I would probably fly into Hilo instead of Kona and stay in or around the Hilo area. However, it’s also considered one of the best Hawaii honeymoon hotels, so it may be more ideal for couples looking to just relax instead of exploring the island.
What to Pack for the Big Island
For the most part, packing for a trip to the Big Island is the same as packing for any of the Hawaiian Islands. You’ll want to bring tank tops, shorts, a bathing suit, sunscreen, and everything else that you would typically bring. However, there are a few things you will want to bring with you that you may not immediately think about.
The first is a good pair of tennis shoes. Not just good walking shoes or sandals. Bring something that has good traction and is completely enclosed, like tennis shoes or hiking boots. These will be especially important if you plan on visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and even Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. If you want to really go exploring, you’ll be climbing over rough lava rock, and a good pair of shoes will be super helpful. My mom learned this the hard way. She was wearing sandals when climbing on lava rock. Her shoe got stuck on one of the edges of the rock, and she fell and broke her toe. Trust me, bring good shoes.
The next is bug spray, especially if you’re the type of person who bugs just seem to love. For some reason, when I visited the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, the bugs there seemed to just love me. After a while I just hit the point where I didn’t even care about the beautiful plants and scenery because I was so annoyed by the bugs and just wanted to get out of there. I know I had at least 3 or 4 bug bites after just an hour of being there.